Sound waves used to study snow

By Anne-Marie Hickey, The StarPhoenix, Saskatoon, SK
November 9, 2009

A University of Saskatchewan graduate student has discovered how to use sound waves to determine the water content of snow — a finding that could help scientists better predict floods and droughts and shed light on climate change.
“Nicholas Kinar is the only person who has been able to figure out how to use sound waves to measure the amount of water in snow,” said his supervisor John Pomeroy, Canada Research chair in Water Resources and Climate Change and director of the U of- Centre for Hydrology.
“This will allow people to put improved water management systems in place and offer an early warning for water irrigation supply,” said Pomeroy, noting that 80 per cent of the water in Saskatchewan lakes and rivers comes from melted snow.

In the past, measurements of snow were conducted invasively, which destroyed the internal structure and layering of the snowpack. This meant that physical changes could not be tracked over time, making this process a poor indicator of “snow water equivalent” — the amount of water that would be extracted if the snow melted.
“We’re going to be able to do this without having to touch the snowpack,” said Kinar. “Not only will it feed into climate and water predictions, but we may be able to use the technology to better understand why avalanches occur. This could be really useful in the mountains and could potentially save lives.”
Using a loudspeaker, Kinar sends sound waves into the snowpack, which reflects them back to a microphone assembly.
The information then travels into a computer program Kinar developed that determines physical properties of the snowpack, such as temperature and density.
This information predicts how much water is contained in snow and how much water can be expected as runoff for the ecosystem and human use and consumption.
Once the technology is perfected, it will be used by meteorological stations to collect information on physical properties of snow in addition to data collected on temperature, wind speed or rainfall.
Being able to measure snow properties as the snowpack evolves and changes during the winter season will allow for more reliable water and weather predictions in the future, said Kinar.
“Environment Canada would be a likely user for this, and so would provinces, so they could make better water resource predictions,” said Pomeroy, who is president of the International Commission for Snow and Ice Hydrology.
“The Red River flooded this spring in Manitoba because of excessive snowpack. This year, we faced a severe drought in the western prairies due to lack of snow. This technology would allow us to have an early warning on these disasters.”
Kinar will finish manufacturing the system by October and it will be tested during the winter season in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta.
Kinar’s invention was not simple to create. He had to custom design electronic circuits to be sent away for manufacturing.
After the printed circuit boards were returned from the manufacturer, he began the arduous task of putting the device together.
A typical circuit may contain hundreds of components, said Kinar, and some are as small as a grain of rice.
For this work, Kinar was awarded a three-year NSERC Alexander Graham Bell Canada Graduate Scholarship and the best student paper award from the Canadian Geophysical Union.
He also received interest from NASA for a device he created during his master’s degree that could help confirm satellite measurements for the Cold Land Processes Mission.
“I enjoy the challenge associated with persevering to make something work and finding the tantalizing clues that need to be assembled before trying out a procedure,” said Kinar. “I have always had a strong desire to help other people and it is my hope that as a scientist I will be apt to create, invent and change some things in my world.”
–Anne-Marie Hickey is a student intern for the U of S- research communications office. Visit www.usask/research for more stories of student research.
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